Review

What I Loved

by Siri Hustvedt



WHAT I LOVED, the new book by Brooklyn-based writer Siri Hustvedt,
does not know what it wants to be. Is it a conventional family
drama, or is it a study of the Club Kid subculture prevalent in New
York City in the 1980s? Is it a book about psychological phenomena
like hysteria and eating disorders, or is it an examination of a
teenager's descent into lying, stealing, drug abuse and, perhaps,
murder? The answer is that WHAT I LOVED is all of these things ---
and that's the problem.

The first third of the book introduces the Wechslers and
Hertzbergs, families featuring like-minded souls bound together by
their love of art. Bill Wechsler, a rising artist, has a son named
Mark from his brief marriage to Lucille, an emotionally stunted
poet. The marriage is doomed and Bill leaves Lucille for Violet,
his artistic muse and a psychology scholar. Bill's best friend, Leo
Hertzberg, is a Harvard educated art history professor at Columbia
University. Leo is married to Erica, an English professor at
Rutgers. They have a son named Matthew, who was born within days of
Mark. The families live in the same building in SoHo and share
summer trips to Vermont, where they trade ideas about art and
literature and chart the growth of the boys.

The author strains to make the adult characters sound like the
intellectuals she wants them to be. There is no humor or even a
touch of lightness in any of them. Hustvedt crams in so many French
phrases, references to minor philosophers and fancy literary
criticism terms like "elongation" that there is no room for any
humanity to seep in. Moreover, the formal prose often clanks false
and fails to advance anything --- not any plot line and certainly
not our understanding of the characters. The boys do not fare much
better. Matthew Hertzberg is a sensitive dreamer with artistic
sensibilities, which is fine. But most eleven-year olds do not
sound like this: "On the way home in the car when we were all
quiet, I thought about how everybody's thoughts keep changing. The
thoughts that people were having . . . turned into new thoughts
when we were in the car. That was then but this is now, but then
that now is gone, and there's a new now. Right now, I'm saying
right now, but it's over before I've finished saying it."

Although the book is set in the sensory rich locale of SoHo and the
Lower East Side, the City sits limp off camera and the reader never
senses the crackling spirit of downtown life. For the author, it is
enough to make stray references to "West Broadway" or "the Bowery."
Hustvedt invests too much energy in developing the strange world of
New York's mutable art scene of the '80s and '90s. Bill Wechsler's
art exhibits are painstakingly rendered, with descriptions that
last page after exhausting page. The author, writing under the
pretense that more is more, does not trust the reader enough to
give few, well chosen details of Bill's paintings and box art
creations.

WHAT I LOVED is written in the first person, with Leo Hertzberg as
its narrator. On two occasions, Leo delivers the news of untimely
deaths --- those of his son Matthew and his best friend Bill. The
deaths are treated with a matter-of-fact detachment that fails to
engage the reader. But the deaths give the author room to move the
story into strange, unpredictable terrain. Indeed, the last half of
the book bears little resemblance to what came before it. Hustvedt
surprisingly builds this part of the book around Mark Wechsler,
Bill's shy son who, as he grows into a teenager, slides into the
murky Club Kid world, with its bizarre costuming and fascination
with horror art.

Teddy Giles, horror artist extraordinaire, is a 20-something sleaze
whose "art" consists of destruction and grotesque, violent images.
Giles befriends Mark and the two lead a life of mayhem, culminating
in the murder of a fellow Club Kid. As Mark settles into his new
life, he lies to Leo and Violet --- his surrogate parents after
Bill's death --- and begins stealing from them. The lies get
bigger, the stealing and drug use get worse and Leo and Violet
decide to save Mark, who has fled New York with Giles. At this
point, Giles hijacks the story and, incredibly, plays Leo for a
sap. For some unknowable reason, Leo, a brilliant art history
professor with a Harvard degree, decides he will just do whatever
Giles wants. Giles wants Leo to chase him and Mark in a senseless
cat and mouse game that leads from Minnesota to Iowa to Tennessee.
Leo does not enlist any help, call the police, or say enough is
enough. No. Giles says jump and, ludicrously, Leo does. It doesn't
make any sense and it doesn't lead anywhere --- there's no payoff
at the end of this chase.

WHAT I LOVED is marketed as an imaginative, breakout novel, but it
is neither of these things. In many passages, Hustvedt does command
the language in a voice that needs to be heard again. She misfires
badly, but the reader senses a bright mind at work, one capable of
much more than is on display in this disappointing book.

Reviewed by Andrew Musicus on January 24, 2011

What I Loved
by Siri Hustvedt

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312421192
  • ISBN-13: 9780312421199